Mark Munoz (top) looked impressive in stopping Chris Leben by TKO in their UFC 138 middleweight bout. (Icon/SMI)
Veterans on the mend found their groove and newcomers emerged on the talent radar. A new bantamweight contender stood up. That was more than enough for UFC 138. Cards on British soil have gotten shorter shrift over time, and with the clock ticking down on UFC's changeover from Spike TV to FOX, Saturday night's event was largely treated as an afterthought, with some less than charitable assessments of its relevance. There were still some popcorn-worthy moments, and UFC-starved fans at Birmingham's LG Arena ate it up while putting $1.5 million in the till. Brits on the card went 3-3 against other nations, but hey, no evening out is perfect.
Even the most nationalistic of observers could get excited about Brazilian 135-pounder Renan Barao's win over Brad Pickett. And when 135-pound champ Dominick Cruz's hand heals up, he may have a whale of a fight waiting.
In other news, the recently snubbed Carlos Condit has his next charge, according to Dana White. The UFC president announced at UFC 138's post-event press conference that "The Natural Born Killer" will face off with Josh Koscheck at UFC 143 on Super Bowl weekend. What sort of contingency plan is there if Koscheck, as good a wrestler as the striking savvy Condit has ever faced, walks away with the victory? It's inconceivable that Koscheck could cut to the front of the line with an 0-2 ledger against the champ. On the other hand, if Condit were to win, it would certainly quiet those griping about his worthiness as a contender. So, we'll see.
Mark Muñoz (12-2): For a guy who'd stumbled once on his way up the ladder, it wasn't much surprise that Muñoz elected not to test his standup against brawler Chris Leben. Of course, the Leben that showed up Saturday wasn't the Yushin Okami that made it impossible to do what he does best. He did to Leben what he was supposed to do in that fight -- ground and pound and pound some more. Can he do the same against champ Anderson Silva? He wants that fight, and it's getting harder to deny him the opportunity given the dearth of plausible contenders. Muñoz has the wrestling to give Silva problems, sure. But I don't see the same explosiveness and follow-through from "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" that I see from Chael Sonnen in takedowns, and therefore I'm not convinced that he has what it takes to beat the champ. Plus, he'll likely have to fight the winner of Michael Bisping vs. Jason Miller or Anthony Johnson vs. Vitor Belfort, unless, of course, Silva puts his foot down on not fighting Sonnen again. In that case, he may just get the title shot he wants, despite the fact that he was once a loose affiliate of the Black House team to which Silva belonged, and the champ doesn't like to fight teammates. Right?
Renan Barao (27-1): There's the terror we saw flashes of in the WEC, who's now the owner of a 27-fight win streak after squelching Brad Pickett. Where did it go in Barao's debut six months ago against Cole Escovedo? He seemed to play it dreadfully safe there. On Saturday, he was anything but. He was not only accurate but ruthless with a lunging knee, and a stiff jab kept away most of Pickett's punches -- most. Still, it took him, what, a few milliseconds to leap on the Brit's back and cinch a choke after landing one of those knees? Yikes. A guy like that in an emerging division such as the featherweight class is not long from a crack at the belt. I'm curious whether consistency is a thing with Barao -- his record has him blowing through some while seemingly struggling to put away others -- but for now, I'll happily reserve judgment.
Anthony Perosh (12-6): Still crazy after all these years is the Aussie. 39-year-old Perosh looked 10 years younger with a second-round submission win over Cyrille Diabate. He's not going to be a contender any time soon, but it looks like he's finally got his feet underneath him after dropping his first three octagon appearances. Some great bread-and-butter jiu-jitsu to behold.
Che Mills (14-4): Mills beat former DREAM champ Marius Žaromskis twice before it was fashionable to do so. He fought UFC vet Paul Taylor to a no contest, stumbled against countryman and Judo black belt Jim Wallhead, and was submitted by Yuya Shirai. Saturday's bout with the still-developing Chris Cope was his to win, and he surely did in emphatic fashion with a 40-second TKO. Let's see how he does against those with a proven ground game.
Thiago Alves (19-8): Not that Alves isn't a tremendously talented individual -- he is. But being realistic about his first-round blowout of Papy Abedi, it wasn't too much of a surprise if you took a good look at Abedi's tape. The much more experienced Alves needed to get back on his feet, and that he certainly did after simply getting outclassed by Rick Story a half-year ago. It's going to take another fight or two before he shows us if he and his kidneys have another title run in him. I kid, I kid.
Terry Etim (15-3): Well, that's one way to announce your return. Jab, hook, leg kick, spinning back kick, guillotine -- tap! Where have you been in our lives, Mr. Etim? Injured, of course. But after 19 months on the bench -- we last saw him submitted by Rafael Dos Anjos in the sweltering heat of Abu Dhabi at UFC 112 -- he showed no signs of wear, and he wasn't in the cage long enough to show it, anyway. Eddie Faaloloto wasn't his combat Rushmore, so we'll see how things play out when he gets back into the middle of the lightweight pack.
Cyrille Diabate (17-8-1) and Jason Young (8-5): Lock yourselves in a collegiate wrestling room and stay for a year, gents. Too much to ask? Maybe. It is a tall order, and the clock is ticking for the 38-year-old striking specialist Diabate, who at 2-2 is dangerously close to the octagon's guardrail. The 25-year-old Young -- a savage kicker -- has time, and let's be fair, both of them were up against legit grappling black belts. But sure enough, the explosive skills displayed on the feet crumbled with a takedown. Anthony Perosh found Diabate's neck and a submission, and Omigawa controlled Young for a points win. It's a shame. UFC fans love a good sprawl and brawl artist. Can they deliver before the axe falls?
Chris Leben (22-8): All those years of bad choices seem to be catching up to Leben in a hurry. That, or something went drastically wrong in training camp or the weight cut for Muñoz. Maybe he phoned it in. Whatever it was, by the end of the first, he was digging through his change cup to find the gas to fight. There are ultimately no excuses for that. Leben is nine years into his MMA career. He's an emotional guy -- we all know this, and it's part of his appeal as well as his toughness (a preternaturally hard chin doesn't hurt either). But he's at a deficit if an opponent doesn't agree to go punch-for-punch with him. Not time for him to hang it up, but I suspect there aren't more than a handful of fights in his future, and a title shot isn't one.
Papy Abedi (8-1): There just wasn't much to be excited about with Abedi's performance against Alves. Not surprising, because if you take a fight against a top-10 welterweight as your first UFC fight, you're going to look bad or like the second coming. It's not like he choked, but he just didn't have much to offer. One more shot against an entry-level guy; let's see what Abedi can do against more even competition.
Eddie Faaloloto (2-3): A puzzling choice in the first place for a Zuffa contract with a 2-0 record, Hawaiian Faaloloto sealed his fate with loss No. 3 under the industry-leader. Quite clearly, he isn't ready for the big show.
Rob Broughton (15-7-1): Tough as nails, Broughton looked to find quick redemption after he and Travis Browne wheezed through three rounds at the mile-high UFC 135 and judges gave "Hapa" the nod. Unfortunately, he was outgrappled by the unheralded Philip De Fries, and looks like he's headed back to the minors. He's the kind of fighter that won't be finished and will make good fighters look bad, but even in the shabby state of the heavyweight class, that's a short-lived routine.
-- Steven Marrocco